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The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie

Jonathan S. McIntosh

This theological and philosophical account of the deepest foundations of Middle Earth will enthrall Tolkien fans. McIntosh beautifully and succinctly expounds on creation, angels, evil, holiness, being and time, and the overruling providence of the God who is “never absent and never named,” as Tolkien put it. In Tolkien’s stories, “faith and philosophy have met and mythos and logos have kissed.” McIntosh can be heavy-handed with his discussions about God’s power and evil’s origins, but readers will find here proof that Tolkien is as profound a philosopher-theologian as literary craftsman—and that good theology makes good stories.

Mariner: A Theological Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Malcolm Guite

Guite writes a magnificent line-by-line exposition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and deftly pairs it with Coleridge’s own life story. From “the kirk, the hill, the lighthouse top” of the poet’s youth, to his descent into the “Night-mare Life-in-Death” of opium addiction and subsequent recovery by returning to the Trinitarian faith of his childhood, Guite illustrates how Coleridge’s own voyage through life parallels that of his fictional Mariner. He also argues for Coleridge’s goal to unite faith and reason by tracing them “back to their single source in the holy Logos.”

George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles: Incarnation, Doubt, and Reenchantment

Timothy Larsen

Larsen neither cheerleads for MacDonald’s theology nor critiques it, but rather explains its historical significance. One key insight: After 1850, British theologians began heavily emphasizing Christ’s incarnation at the expense of His atonement. Larsen persuasively links MacDonald’s work to this trend. Christmas—the celebration of Christ’s incarnation—was MacDonald’s favorite holiday, while Easter—the doctrine of atonement—held less importance to him. Another insight: Following Coleridge’s views, he believed that all creation, properly apprehended, points toward God. MacDonald, whom G.K. Chesterton called “Saint Francis of Aberdeen,” showed his greatest strength in revealing the spiritual dynamics of the everyday.

On the Edge of Infinity: A Biography of Michael D. O’Brien

Clemens Cavallin

On the first page of his account of O’Brien’s life, Cavallin informs us, “The car was slightly unreliable.” Car trouble is a theme throughout the biography, as it symbolizes the difficult path O’Brien chose as a Christian painter and novelist. He supported six children while waiting 18 years for his first novel to be published, and continues to choose to follow God over mammon. O’Brien exemplifies both “the courage and persistence that a sincere religious life demands in late modern times.” And he proves that our Father always provides.

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Uncertain places

Why Donald Trump is president

The gut-punching photographs and stories in Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (Penguin Random House, 2019) explain how Donald Trump won crucial Midwest states in 2016. Free trade has reduced the cost of many items but also led to many factory closures, and Arnade shows us some of the unemployed and despairing. It’s easy to say “move to places where jobs exist,” but many are neither readily mobile (for family reasons) or easily trainable for different occupations.

In Why Cities Lose (Basic, 2019), Jonathan Rodden shows how state legislatures as well as Congress and the Electoral College now have a built-in Republican edge, since Democratic votes are concentrated in cities. Some urban Democratic candidates win 90 percent of the vote in their districts, but Republicans who win 55 percent of the vote in theirs also gain a seat. Democrats can either change the rules or try to appeal more broadly.

Ian Haney López’s Dog Whistle Politics (Oxford, 2015) sees those statistics and is upset that lower-middle-class whites tend to vote Republican: They are supposedly “led astray by appeals to social concerns.” They supposedly do not “recognize their actual economic interests.” López sees “coded racial appeals” at play, but his index does not even include the word “abortion.” 

Daniel Hill’s White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White (IVP, 2017) is a superficial look. White privilege was across-the-board a half-century ago, but now it varies from sphere to sphere: Whites are certainly privileged in law enforcement, but blacks are clearly privileged in hiring within universities. White privilege because of college admission through legacies, contacts, and cheating is a reasonable defense for affirmative action, but quotas hurt poor white kids. And so it goes: “Check your privilege” makes sense at street level when we go sphere by sphere, but Hill follows the crowd in overgeneralizing.

Truth Decay by Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael Rich (Rand Corp., 2018) has a nicely humble subtitle: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life. I hope, in their fuller exploration, they’ll do more historical research before contending that in recent years we have seen “a blurring of the line between opinion and fact.” Such blurring is nothing new and is even inevitable, since which facts to emphasize, and even what a fact is, often depends on worldviews. America 50 years ago did not have a golden age when network news shows merely presented facts: Walter Cronkite’s CBS sign-off, “And that’s the way it is,” lacked humility.

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Four classic books

How to Read a Book 

Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren

Adler’s book from 1940—updated with Van Doren in 1972—offers a detailed look at how to read efficiently. He systematically presents four levels of reading (elementary, inspectional, analytical, syntopical) as well as best practices for each, including note-taking advice and questions for readers. While Adler can be too granular at times, he sheds much-needed light on a murky subject. The 1972 version includes 130 book recommendations, many drawn from the Great Books of the Western World series Adler helped curate. Although he touches on genres like poetry and fiction, Adler’s prescriptions for nonfiction books and classics shine brightest.

A Conflict of Visions

Thomas Sowell

Over the last five decades, economist Thomas Sowell has written more than 40 books dealing with economics, politics, and culture. In his 1987 book A Conflict of Visions, Sowell reveals the centuries-long conflict between the conservative, “constrained” worldview and the liberal, “unconstrained” worldview. Sowell firmly sides with conservatives, pointing to human moral limitations as the main “constraint” on our political and economic solutions. But his clear perception of both sides of the political aisle—particularly on hot topics like social justice and equality—increases the book’s relevance today. Sowell occasionally embraces un-Biblical ideas, such as evolutionary theories about human knowledge.

Thinking in Pictures

Temple Grandin

Animal scientist Temple Grandin designed more than a third of livestock-handling facilities in the United States. Yet Grandin lives with autism, a neurological disorder that made communication and social interaction impossible in her early years. Her 2006 book Thinking in Pictures unpacks her experience and suggests best practices for helping autistic people today. Although the inspiring HBO biopic starring Claire Danes (Temple Grandin, 2010) gives a better introduction to Grandin’s life, Thinking in Pictures is an informative and compelling view of life on the spectrum. One caution: In a final chapter, Grandin offers a view of God uninformed by Scripture.

Spiritual Depression

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

False teaching, trials, persecution. Lloyd-Jones covered these and many other causes of spiritual depression in his 1950s preaching series on the topic. In the sermons’ book form, Lloyd-Jones begins by pointing out that followers of Christ can and do get depressed. When that happens, we need not despair. Rather, “fly to Him at once and He will receive you and bless you.” The book reads faster and more conversationally than many classics, yet Lloyd-Jones doesn’t shy away from weighty doctrines such as justification by faith. A challenging, faith-building read at any stage of the Christian walk.

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